Exegetical extras: Paul and Seneca

Exegetical extras are interesting facts about or alternative interpretations of a particular Scripture passage. They’re here for interest value or to stretch our thinking. Just because something appears here doesn’t mean I’m persuaded it’s correct, just intrigued… Exegetical extras will be posted whenever I come across something interesting. 

The Stoic philosopher Seneca represents possibly the height of Greek and Roman ethical idealism. Writing at about the same time as the apostle Paul, he urged people to live up to the highest ideals of virtuous behaviour. One such ideal was that of putting oneself at risk for the sake of another. He writes this:

If a man be worthy I would defend him even with my blood, and would share his perils. (On Benefits, 1.10.6)
I must help him who is perishing, yet so that I do not perish myself, unless by so doing I can save a great man or a great cause. (2.15)

This he believes, is the highest human virtue: to give your life for a worthy cause, or a great person. I think it’s quite possible Paul is referring to this in Romans 5:

5:7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.

Paul seems to be agreeing with Seneca, and other Stoic philosophers. This ideal of putting yourself at risk, of dying for someone worthy. A friend. Your family. Your city. Yes, it’s true, he says. Someone might actually live up to this every once in a while. ‘Though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.’

But, says Paul, God goes far beyond even the Stoic ideal. He dies not for a ‘good person’. Not for a friend. Not for someone who loves him back. But for an unworthy people who had chosen to reject him, to ignore him, and to live in outright rebellion against him.

5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In other words, “God does for enemies what even a virtuous person would hesitate to do for a friend.” (David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 129.)

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